Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How humanity is loving nature to death

I read an interesting article from BBC a while ago. It is about endangered species, and how our love of endangered species is endangering the species. You may read about this interesting theory here.

It starts with a bit of human psychology. Humans love rarity. I recall my marketing lesson where the lecturer explained the marketing strategy for a dying product which had no growth and no market share: To exploit brand loyalty by raising the price of the remaining outdated stock, claiming them the last batch to be bought as collectors' item. A French biologist Franck Courchamp suggested that it is human nature to see animals and all wild things in this light. As something becomes rare, the value we put on it will rise. This will make the harvesting of the creature even more profitable, hastening its exploitation and probably its extinction.

Dr Franck Courchamp conducted an experiment. In a garden there were two cages keeping chipmunks, one labelled rare and the other common; they were in fact the same species. There were two doors and a notice saying that one would have to pay extra to see the animal inside, which was said either to be rare or common. The experiment monitored people's behaviour and choices. It turned out that visitors valued the rare over the common. People would spend more time looking at or looking for an animal if they were told it was rare; they would walk up more flights of stairs, spend more money, or get wetter and colder to reach its cage.

Franck Courchamp thought this could result in an Anthropogenic Allee Effect. The theory was developed by Warder Clyde Allee. The general idea is that for smaller populations, the reproduction and survival of individuals decrease. Below a critical density, the population of the species will continue to decrease.

This could be the beginning of a route to extinction. If people think they prefer the taste of a rare species of caviar, then that caviar will command a higher price than the other, and fishermen will seek the sturgeon that makes it. It is also happening in the pet trade, an amphibian specialist confirms that the rarer the frog (or other animal), the more money it could fetch. One might think that hunters and traders would have an interest in keeping a sustainable population of these creatures alive so they have something to hunt for years to come. But the economics say otherwise.

In fact, so much do people desire these scarce things that some organizations are starting to be more careful about publicizing the rarity of anything that could be collected. The paradox is that only by publicizing it can they raise a wider awareness that could prevent its extinction.

On the Allee effect, Dr Courchamp also has a research article on Rarity Value and Species Extinction published in the journal of the Public Library of Science. While standard economic theory predicts that human exploitation alone is unlikely to result in species extinction because of the escalating costs of finding the last individuals of a declining species, the research reports that human predisposition to place exaggerated value on rarity fuels disproportionate exploitation of rare species, rendering them even rarer and thus more desirable, ultimately leading them into an extinction vortex. The article is difficult to read and it comprises mathematical models. However, in simple term, it listed out six human activities that could create an Anthropogenic Allee Effect.

Collections. The most straightforward example of a nature-related activity where rarity is valued is that of hobby collections, where the rarest items are the most valued and thus demand the highest prices.

Trophy hunting. Trophy hunting represents another form of collection. For thousands of years, several cultures have valued trophies as a sign of manhood and virility. Species that were difficult to kill symbolized power, because power was required to kill them. However, because sophisticated firearms are now used, the emphasis of hunting has shifted from dangerous to rare animals. Rarer species are harder to find, so greater hunting skill and greater wealth are required, and greater prestige is gained by killing them.

Luxury items. The consumption of rare species as luxury food items is another way of displaying wealth and social status. The rarer the item, the more expensive it is, and the more prestige is gained by its acquisition.

Exotic pets. Another activity that can lead to a Allee Effect is exotic pet ownership, which is an increasingly important part of the wildlife trade business. Reptile, bird, and monkey pets are becoming ever more fashionable in some parts of the world, with the rarest species being especially sought after.

Ecotourism. Ecotourism ventures have expanded greatly in recent years, with the public increasingly wanting to experience a closeness to natural ecosystems or species. Such activities often involve encountering and observing rare species. Given that some ecotourism activities have been shown to generate disturbances that are detrimental to the fitness of observed species, we can assume that rare species, especially those that are charismatic, will be disproportionately impacted upon by ecotourism.

Traditional medicine. Traditional medicine uses many rare and endangered species. Although other aspects may influence ingredient choice, rarity certainly plays a role and may therefore result in an Allee Effect.

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